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Eye for it

Forget those moody abstracts for your first exhibition in New York. Steve Boniface says shooting advertisements gives you plenty of opportunity for self-expression, and you’ll put some food on the table too. He talks to Dan Poynton.

Portrait of Steve Boniface. Photography by Adrian Vercoe

Steve Boniface has shot some of New Zealand’s classic commercials, and he sees no difference – creatively – between this work and his most personal. “I love concept and idea, I’m purely into that,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter which genre – any image with an idea”. And let’s face it, even the staunchest ad-phobe can’t not be charmed by those loveable dogs he shot recently for the award-winning Animals Like Us dog-food commercials.

“Even my commercial work, when I take on a project I’ll give it everything.” And this work often transcends its mere utility. His haunting Rembrandt-inspired images of breast cancer survivors for the Breast Cancer Foundation ended up being exhibited at Auckland Art Gallery.

Steve’s also gained some prestigious international plaudits: he was PDN’s 2016 Faces winner, and he’s been in the top 200 photographers of Lurzer’s Archive for the last six years.

But these successes were a while coming for this high school dropout from Palmerston North. After escaping school Steve took a tourism course, did quite a bit of partying, and “again dropped out.” He took off to Auckland to become a hairdresser, but constantly “dealing with people’s problems became like one big psych session.”

Moving to Wellington he still couldn’t find a purpose, but he did find a girlfriend. She was a designer-photographer and suggested he take photos on his day off. After just a couple of months of experimenting he got into the Massey University photography programme. “I turned up there and I didn’t even know how to develop photos,” he smiles. “I was so into it though – I’d spend all night in a darkroom just working. I just get obsessed with stuff.”

Fortune seeking in London followed. He began doggedly searching for work and, out of the blue, landed jobs on worldwide campaigns for PlayStation and for Discovery Channel. “I didn’t even really know what I was doing, but I got paid more money than I’ve ever had in my life.” And so began Steve’s international career (and yes, that girlfriend’s now his wife). But don’t get too excited, aspiring photographers! Steve offers a sober warning: “It came to me too easy. I didn’t realise photography involves a really strong work ethic.”

But he also believes great photography is based on feeling, not technique. “You need to learn your craft as a base but anyone can do that. It’s about having something unique in your voice. It’s about what you can add.” And versatility is vital: “You can’t just take a photograph any more” to maintain a career: “You also need to be able to shoot video and direct it.”

Steve is one of the judges of the inaugural Capital Photographer of the Year competition. What is he looking for? “I’m always excited to see what people are doing, especially people who aren’t already taking photographs. Sometimes people who aren’t photographers can do the most interesting stuff – there’s sort of a rawness about it.”

So, you competitors, all in all your advice looks simple: be yourself – but first get off your butt and do some work.


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